For every Sara Bareilles, there are a million and one Elaine Romanelli's, trying to be heard. The dearth of studio-backed voices and rise of YouTube sensations have given way to a new brand of artists heavily reliant on crowd-funding to spread the word around.
Romanelli is one of those new, DYI, solo touring artists. Not only does she sing pretty songs, she writes them, playing on her piano and some guitar, and going wherever the gig takes her. There was a time when she almost walked away from the life of a nomadic musician. But she turned back, inspired by the original songs in her head. After settling in New York City, the indie artist immersed herself completely in the music scene, found further inspiration from other musicians, and recorded a major studio album of her original songs. Lots of tours followed, along with more than a few accolades, much radio play, a few conference showcases, and a hefty fan following.
Her music is a cross between quirky confessional journal and indie movie soundtrack. Her voice is real, and her lyrics jump the fence between universally melodic and oddly re-defining, subconscious narratives. Her fans find themselves in the songs about the everyday connections that ripple out and tether them together.
Recently, inspired by those fans, Romanelli poured herself into a brand-new album, Stories People Told Me. She’s turned to crowd-funding on IndieGoGo to help launch and promote the album, which contains more of her artisan songs and touches on the live-wire atmosphere of her solo shows. Fans have until September 25 to help the singer/songwriter raise upwards of $6,500, which would truly make her dreams come true. She envisions a monthly video series, an expanded touring schedule to include overseas destinations, and new merchandise.
On September 15, Elaine Romanelli provided a deeper glimpse into what drives her as an artist.
Elaine, why do you do what you do? The path of a musician isn’t easy. It’s often thankless, and as you mentioned on your IndieGoGo page, lonely.
It can be tough, for sure. It’s like being a parent – long hours, no days off, extremely low pay, constant multi-tasking… and exasperating, often incomprehensible beings outside of you now in charge of your destiny.
Why I do it… I can come up with reasons, but I don’t think it comes from a reasoned place. It’s certainly not about ‘doing what you love.’ Most of my daily work I emphatically do not love, but it has to be done, so my staff (me) reluctantly forges on.
Nor is it about fun. Sometimes it’s fun, but sometimes it’s terrifying. Nor is it for applause, or recognition. If it were about any of that, I think I’d just go out to karaoke a lot.
It’s also not the booze and the babes. Keith took everyone’s share already.
For me I think it’s more of a calling. The best way I can describe it is this: music expresses the inexpressible. Humans need that to survive, as much as food, or air. Music needs a conduit. I am good at being that conduit. When I am in my most right place, that’s what I’m doing: music is coming through me, out to whomever needs it.
I can’t solve all the world’s problems, but I can open people to their own hearts. I can leave someone feeling more understood, more connected to other people, and kinder toward themselves than when they arrived.
What was the trigger for Stories People Told Me?
My friend Si Kahn (extraordinary folk musician and activist) said, “When’s the next album coming out? No… really. Get going. It’s time.” The album started around a core of songs, and I wrote more with that core in mind, and slowly it took shape.
It’s the most cohesive project I’ve done to date, and also the most influenced by interacting with fans. I do feel they are our stories collectively, and that’s why I took on running a crowd-funding campaign; in the hopes of getting this album farther out into the world.
How do you hear music (in order to translate what you hear — and feel — into music people can feel and hear too)? How do you translate what’s going on around you into a song? What do you hear that maybe the rest of us don’t… in terms of you hearing a song whereas we just hear words in a conversation?
Sometimes it starts with a feeling that’s burning to be expressed. Occasionally the Muse deposits a piece of song in my head, usually in the morning when I’m between asleep and awake. (More, please!) Not infrequently, it’s utter desperation; I need a song for a specific occasion, and I can’t find one already written that will work.
In terms of why it’s a song versus a poem or prose, I’m not sure. I write frequently. I have a blog where I turn over thoughts, and I’ve written both poems and songs to mark notable events.
I think perhaps some songs develop because of what I said earlier: music expresses the inexpressible. Life is full of turmoil, momentous events, dull parties that look exciting, magical moments that look dull, conflicting emotions, doubt… and we yearn to process all that somehow. Sometimes a couple chords can articulate what a whole treatise can’t.
What have been your proudest moments in recording this album?
The studio is exciting and fun, but also the clock is ticking, and time is money. Stress in your mind or body shows up clearly in your voice, and the mic magnifies it. So I’m proud of the times when all that melted away, and I disappeared into the song, learning what it meant as it came out.
Tell me about yourself, something nobody knows, a brief description of you and how you came to find yourself making music not found in the usual places, like Lucid Culture.
If I were a candy bar, I’d be ‘Gooey soul-searching center marbled with veins of humor and crunchy hippie tendencies, wrapped in a coating of hedonism and dipped in extroversion.’ (And then covered in chocolate. I adore chocolate.)
About making music not found in the usual places… the ‘usual places’ are licensed music venues, which are set up for music, and have a lot of amenities, and often a reputation that can help you inch your way up. All great!
The downside to venues is they increasingly expect you to bring the entire audience, which is tough to do anywhere, but really tough in a new-to-you market. It’s difficult and time consuming to promote each show and get an audience there, and the pay is often not great, even with a packed house.
So I’ve been playing in a wider array of types of settings. I play in care facilities, folk clubs, libraries, colleges, and in people’s homes at house concerts (that’s my favorite!). I’ve also started giving lectures and workshops. All these are hard to book, but so are venue shows, and these alternative places have a built-in audience, which is a huge help.
It’s a balancing act between shows that can help you build your fan base, and work that compensates you enough to make it possible to keep going. There aren’t many shows that do both.
Lucid Culture is a music blog that reviewed my previous album. I’ve never met the reviewer, I’m not even sure how the review happened. I’m just extremely grateful for the kind words.
What happens after the album comes out, a tour?
The very first step is to deliver the crowd-funding campaign perks! The campaign runs through September 25th, so we won’t begin production until after that, just in case someone wants Grand High Poobah credit on the album. (That’s an actual perk! It comes with a private house concert anywhere in the U.S.)
I’ll tour to some areas either way, but if the campaign gets fully funded, I’ll have the resources to do a much more complete roll-out of the album; to tour to more places, to collaborate with artists to put together joint bills, and, crucially, to reach out ahead of time to press and radio. Here’s hoping!
How hard is it for an artist to make a record nowadays?
Making it is pretty easy now. Anyone can try from home, with one decent mic, a computer, internet access, and the willingness to watch tutorials and experiment with sounds. To some extent, that ease has made working in a studio with a pro engineer more accessible as well, bringing the costs down a bit.
What’s hard is what happens next: what you do with the record. Getting anyone outside your immediate circle to care you made it is the tricky part [smiles].
Which do you prefer, making a record or playing live?
Performing live, unquestionably. The studio is magical in so many ways, but for me nothing beats the energy exchange of a live show. Whatever happens, it can never happen again, because the show isn’t just me, it’s also all the people in the audience, and whatever they walked in the door thinking and feeling. It really pulls you into being present, to recognize that you’re creating something temporally fragile but emotionally powerful with a roomful of strangers.
For people who’ve never heard your music, can you describe what it’s like?
I call it ‘catchy tunes for searching souls.’
People seem to connect with the lyrics a lot, which are a mix of direct speech and occasional poetic turns of phrases. One fan says my songs are each like their own little Broadway show, and I take that to mean that there’s a shape to them, even a crisis point; you’re drawn along through a story to some sense of resolution.
Musically my songs are tuneful, and also you can hear that I like a little salt with my chocolate; a little dissonance, a little depth of flavor to spice up the musical stew.
The subjects are the stuff of daily life – doubt, love, longing – but maybe from a slightly different perspective. For instance: there’s a song about being a single parent, but the narrator is a hawk. There’s a peppy falling-in-love song, but it happens during a year when people keep dropping dead.
In writing we often say that the universal lies in the specific. My hope is that the slightly askew frame helps listeners connect what is universal in the song to what is personal and specific in their lives.